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Frontier Folds in Bid to Charge for Empty Middle Seat

Faced with mounting criticism, Frontier Airlines has shelved plans to charge an extra fee to keep middle seats empty, but the fight over the safety of filling those seats continues

May 6, 2020

Frontier Airlines has pulled its plans to charge customers an additional $39 for a guaranteed empty middle seat in their row. “We simply wanted to provide our customers with an option for more space,” the airline’s CEO Barry Biffle wrote in a letter to lawmakers as reported by Associated Press. In the letter, Biffle said the “More Room” option was being shelved in the face of a wave of negative response from politicians and the public.

On Wednesday, May 7, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) criticized the move at a Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing on the airline industry and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for passengers who can’t afford to pay an additional fee to be less safe than other passengers, she said.

Later, the Senator tweeted: “So on Frontier Airlines you now have to pay an extra fee to keep yourself safe from coronavirus. As I said today at the Commerce hearing, there needs to be federal guidance in place so airlines can’t do this. And I thought their half-tray tables were bad,” she added.

Prior to the hearing, the International Air Transport Association released a statement on May 5 calling for the release of middle seats as passengers and crew should be expected to wear masks during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Middle seats should be opened to prevent the airlines from losing money and thus having to increase airfares, IATA said, claiming that, “Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low. Mask-wearing by passengers and crew will reduce the already low risk, while avoiding the dramatic cost increases to air travel that onboard social distancing measures would bring.”

Dr. Hilary Godwin, Dean of the School of Public Health, University of Washington, testifying before the Committee Hearing on Airlines and COVID-19, was asked if masks provided protection when seated “three abreast” in a full flight. “A mask, while good, does not give you absolute protection from those sitting around you,” she responded. “Sitting farther apart from each other does,” she said, contradicting IATA’s statement.

The physician had been called to the hearing to offer up common standards of practice that airlines would practice.

Nicholas Callio, Airlines For America CEO, said at the hearing that his member organizations (which do not include Frontier) would abide by Godwin’s recommendations, but was against federal regulations for compliance.

“Hopefully the market will take care of that,” Calio said. “Well, it didn’t with Frontier,” Klobuchar countered.

Internationally, Lufthansa has already said it would be opening up middle seats, now cordoned off, because the mandated use of masks made them irrelevant. Meanwhile other airlines are adopting different strategies to address the social distancing question.